04 June 2015

Uncovering the secret recipe to sustainable Indigenous employment

Author :

I feel incredibly lucky to be working on the next Indigenous Economic Development conference but every time I call someone to do research or to invite them to speak, I feel a pang of guilt and embarrassment.

‘Hi there, it’s Alexandra from Akolade. I am calling you because I’ve been doing research with XYZ and they recommended I contact you because you have a really great story to share.’

Jim Engelke from KAI is one of those people that I called to invite to speak at the conference because he has a great Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment programme. When I was asking Jim about his ‘secret recipe’ for creating sustainable employment opportunities for Indigenous Australians and whether he’d like to present a case study at the conference, I finally understood where my guilt and embarrassment comes from: I find it appalling that in 2015 we still talk about Indigenous economic development.

Would we think much of a white person who started their own business, who became a lawyer or who went into politics? Would we call them up to invite them to speak at a conference about what they’ve achieved? Would we ask them how to improve job access for other white people? ABSOLUTELY NOT. So why do we still find it so amazing when an Indigenous Australian ‘makes it’ in life? Historically, colonisers treated native people like they were less than nothing, but shouldn’t we have remediated the situation by now?

Don’t get me wrong when I ask these rhetorical questions: I totally see the relevance of having a conference on this topic, but what I find revolting is that in 2015 we still have to talk about it. What have we done – or not done – to get here? How have colonial countries around the world been able to live and prosper knowing how they have treated – and are treating – the original owners of the land where we now live? How on earth can there still be, in 2015, laws like the Canadian Indian Act that keeps Native Canadians in a condition of tutelage where they are treated as wards or children of the State? Unfortunately I don’t have any answer to these questions, but I sure do wish that someone could explain to me how this is right.

So what is the secret recipe for sustainable Indigenous employment?

I understand Jim’s reticence to accept my invitation, and I understand why he downplays his successes with regards to Indigenous employment. According to Jim, the secret to attracting and retaining Indigenous employees is to treat them like any other employee.

There shouldn’t be a side-track for native Australians with different targets or different expectations. In fact, Jim tells his Indigenous employees that he expects even more from them because society already doesn’t expect these employees to succeed, and you don’t want to give society a reason to think they were right, or even worse - for the employee to think that society was right and that they can’t succeed.

So if I had to advise an organisation on how to improve their Indigenous engagement programme, this is what I would recommend based on what I’ve been told:

1. Have the same expectations from an Indigenous employee as you would a white employee

The fact that the candidate for a job comes from a more disadvantaged background does not mean they are stupid or incapable of doing a task appropriately. Why would you treat them any differently and why would you have lower expectations? Lessening performance expectations is unsustainable for both employer and employee.

2. Set up a strong support network

 Support networks seem to be the key to sustainable employment. Buddy programmes and mentorship programmes are the most successful ways of helping Indigenous employees adapt to work commitments and finding balance between performance and cultural obligations.

3. Be flexible

I think everyone is fully aware of how outrageously inappropriate and cruel it is to try and strip a culture of its identity (if you aren’t aware of this, then I beg you to read up on the Stolen Generations). It is crucial for employers to genuinely understand Indigenous culture and some of the obligations that surround it in order to offer reasonable accommodation for Indigenous employees. But what is reasonable accommodation and how do you know the reason given for leave is an acceptable one? Mary from MG Corporate has a very simple answer: just ask your employees for the solution. Again, they are not unintelligent people. You don’t have to have a doctorate to find a viable solution for yourself. Employees know that they have cultural obligations and they know that they must also meet performance expectations (re-read point number one if you’ve already forgotten), so they can help you know what the ‘real’ commitments are because they also want to succeed.

Regarding this last point, I humbly gave guidelines to improve Indigenous employment, but in return I hope that Indigenous people can give us tips to remember who we are, where we belong and help us get back in touch with our own traditions. Let’s not be pretentious and think that only white people have something to offer when we probably have the most to learn.   

Although Alexandra didn’t know much about conference production before first coming across this opportunity with Akolade, she has quickly become passionate about her job. Gaining in-depth knowledge in a variety of new fields without going through exam stress? Who could ask for more? If ever you speak to Alexandra and wonder what that funny accent is, it is from Quebec, French-speaking Canada. Do not hesitate to ask Alexandra about her former life on the 47th parallel; she will be thrilled to talk to you about snow storms, skiing and -35⁰c!

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